Thursday November 30 2023.

5 minute read

Vibrant high streets help young people progress from the shopfloor to boardrooms.

Britain’s high streets are vital for social mobility. As plans develop to revitalise our town centres, we have an opportunity to unlock career progression for the next generation.

High streets and the retailers populating them act as the engine room for social mobility, giving young people their first taste of gainful employment and creating a ripple effect of positive outcomes.

Retail makes up five per cent of the UK economy and employs more than three million people nationally. But the sector is going through a profound change which is reflected by our high streets. As we see renewed emphasis on plans to revitalise high streets, we also have an opportunity to enhance the vital role they play in social mobility.

My first job as a teenager was in a department store on Croydon high street. The former chief executive of Marks & Spencer’s, Steve Rowe, also started his career nearby. Rowe joined the M&S Croydon branch aged 15 and progressed from Saturday boy to big boss over a 40-year career with the retailer. Simon Roberts, another Croydon local, started his career with M&S aged 16 and went on to be appointed chief executive of Sainsbury’s in 2020. These are remarkable examples of social mobility in action.

However, Croydon is now an example of the personality crisis faced by high streets. The local council is battling bankruptcy and planning proposals for Westfield Croydon have failed to materialise. Too many shopfronts remain empty or in a poor state of repair – including the iconic Allders building, which opened in 1862 and closed in 2013.

These challenges are true for town centres across the country, with a deep impact on local economies. When the appetite to do business in a town centre is diminished, fewer jobs are created and the flow of consumer spending decreases. Young people hungry for opportunities are among the first to lose out.

However, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Inflation is stabilising and retailers are rolling out new concepts to lure shoppers away from e-commerce. As the headwinds of Covid-19 blow over, some retailers are betting big on bricks and mortar once again. M&S is opening nine new stores and creating 2,200 jobs. Poundland is opening 75 new stores over the next three months. And Danish homeware brand Sostrene Grand has plans for 100 new stores by 2030.

Local authorities are also getting new powers. The Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill includes powers to bring empty buildings back into use, to permanently relax rules on outdoor seating for food and beverage, and to put local people at the heart of new development.

These changes will help to introduce new opportunities for social mobility. Retailers can also help.

Dame Sharon White, outgoing chair of the John Lewis Partnership, recently shared her view on retail and social mobility with Policy Exchange. She revealed that 400 young people have completed the retailer’s data science apprenticeship, and at least 90 now work within the business. Dame Sharon is optimistic about the role technology can play to augment, rather than replace, high street jobs.

Our instinct to congregate at the heart of our communities is not going away any time soon, but the purpose of town centres is already evolving. More experiential retail, flexible working and inclusive, well-designed community spaces, coupled with better planning procedures, can tackle the scourge of empty shopfronts. And all of this helps to create opportunities for social mobility.

Meanwhile, Britain’s next generation of business leaders like Steve Rowe and Simon Roberts are already kicking off careers on the shopfloor. If our high streets are vibrant and full of opportunities, the benefits for young people and the wider economy are too good to turn down.

Feb 19, 2024

2 minute read

Better questions, better answers for a changing workplace

How should a business measure the worth of its office? It’s a question that came up at a discussion I attended recently on workplace trends. It might seem like a fairly straightforward thing to calculate, but as the world of work evolves rapidly, the answer is no longer as simple as it might first appear.

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What could a Labour government mean for UK towns and cities?

Urban policy in England is central to shaping the socio-economic fortunes of cities and metropolitan areas. From the role of private enterprise in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher through to the start of devolution for metro regions under the coalition, political decisions create lasting legacies. With a General Election potentially likely in May and the prospect of political change, what could a Labour administration mean for our towns and cities?

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